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Unlike Project Glass, another experiment from Google X, the company's lab for "moonshots," Project Loon isn't likely to invite pejorative wordplay along the lines of "Glasshole." Its name immunizes it from ridicule and its goal has broader community value.
"Balloon-powered Internet sounds positively mad," said Richard DeVaul, chief technical architect of Project Loon, in a video. "And in a way it is. But it's mad in a very practical way that could just work."
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Indeed, military contractors like Arizona-based Space Data have already demonstrated that wireless communication links can be extended using balloons.
Google has launched 30 balloons so far around Canterbury, New Zealand, as part of an effort to build a global ring of balloon-borne Internet relay points in the stratosphere. The balloons travel around the globe, carried by the winds at speeds of around 5 to 20 mph, at a height of about 18 to 27 kilometers (11 to 17 miles) or 60,000 to 90,000 feet, which is about twice the height that commercial airlines travel.
Because wind can blow in different directions at different altitudes, Google's engineers believe they can maintain fleets of balloons in specific areas through sophisticated software that directs the balloons to ascend or descend into air currents that will carry them back and forth within a general region.
The balloons provide the equivalent of 3G service using the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz ISM bands in an area that's roughly 40 kilometers in diameter. They also communicate with each other to maintain the positioning necessary to form a functioning network.
While 3G connectivity (3 Mbps, more or less) is significantly less than the 1000 Mbps bandwidth available to Google Fiber subscribers, it's nonetheless a huge improvement over the absence of any Internet connectivity at all.
Google's super-pressure balloons are more durable than conventional weather balloons and are expected to remain aloft for over 100 days, powered by solar energy. They are equipped with parachutes, in case of emergency, and are designed to execute controlled landings at specified collection points for recovery and reuse.
Even at heights of 27 kilometers, national airspace rules still apply, which suggests the project will have little or no utility as a means of bypassing national Internet censorship regimes. Google says it will coordinate with local air traffic control authorities during balloon liftoff and descent.
Google is looking to extend its experiments into countries on a similar latitude with New Zealand.